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Historic Commission to seek grant for African American property survey

by Tia Lyons | January 23, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

The El Dorado Historic District Commission is continuing to plug away at implementing the next phase of a citywide historic preservation plan.

During a regular meeting on Jan. 12, Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the EHDC, said the group will apply for a grant to focus on "multiple property documentation for historic context of African American properties."

Developing an African American context for El Dorado has been recommended in the citywide historic preservation plan to identify and highlight notable AA people, places, landmarks and other historic points of interest in El Dorado.

The EHDC is homing on the St. Louis and Fairview neighborhoods, the oldest AA settlements in the city, dating back to the post-Civil War era.

The St. Louis neighborhood is bordered by West Fifth Street on the north; Mount Holly Road, West Faulkner and West Oak to the south; and North West and North College avenues on the east and west, respectively.

The Fairview Addition is bound by East Main Street on the north; Short Norsworthy and East Cook streets on the south; South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the east; and on the west by Rock Island Right-of-Way and South Madison and South Jackson avenues.

Eggleston said she will submit an application for the next Certified Local Government grant cycle.

The grants are awarded by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. CLGs work with state and federal agencies to preserve historic resources on the local level.

El Dorado is one of 21 CLG communities in the state.

CLG grants were awarded to fund the first phases of the city's historic preservation plan, which was drafted in 2019.

Nearly $115,000 in CLG grants have been used over the past four years to cover the costs of developing the plan -- which included a $10,000 match from the city to support the project -- and to conduct surveys and inventories of hundreds of properties in the Retta Brown, Country Club Colony, Mellor, Bodenhamer, Forest Lawn and Eastridge neighborhoods and subdivisions.

The surveys help to determine if the properties are eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places as individual or area listings.

Now, the EHDC is hoping to do the same for the AA context.

Eggleston also said that state tourism officials have inquired about the former Continental Club in the St. Louis neighborhood to possibly include in the state's Blues Trails tourism brochure to include in Arkansas Welcome Centers.

The St. Louis neighborhood was home to a thriving cluster of black-owned businesses and professional offices.

The Continental Club, which was located on Liberty Street, just west of North West Avenue, was one of a few venues that hosted such legendary performers as BB King, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.

The building that housed the Continental Club was razed decades ago.

Commissioner Steve Biernacki, who is also executive director of the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, said only a handful of black-owned businesses remain in St. Louis, including Sims Mortuary, which was founded in 1951, and Rester's Part III Barber College, both of which are on Liberty Street.

Biernacki described Liberty Street as "the Beale Street of El Dorado" in reference to the famed entertainment district in Memphis

The Nile and Marzell Smith Museum of African American History is also located in St. Louis.

The museum operates out of a commercial building that was once Carver Elementary School, which served Black students during the days of racial segregation in El Dorado, and the El Dorado School District's administrative offices.

The museum is named for its late founders who lived in St. Louis and were both educators.

Biernacki previously said the SAHPS is partnering with SouthArk community college to gather oral histories for the community.

"Oral histories are not a mystery. It's a technique where you get somebody to tell you their story," he said.

"Now, we have the capability to get oral histories digitally and we've taken that technique and applied it to the St. Louis neighborhood," Biernacki continued.

He also pointed out that St. Louis is a predominately AA neighborhood, "not all African American."

Biernacki noted the nondescript building that houses Nile and Marzell Smith museum, saying "Not a lot of local residents know the museum exists."

To help change that, Biernacki said the SAHPS is teaming up with the museum in February, Black History Month, for the society's "Nights with the Museum" series.

"What we want for the St. Louis neighborhood is to get with the shareholders of the neighborhood to find out what their needs and their wants are," he said.

Eggleston said oral histories were recommended in the citywide preservation plan and a consulting firm will be hired to help take on that component of the plan.

She and Biernacki noted that a key benefit of a historic neighborhood designation is that property owners may be eligible for state and federal tax credits for applicable restoration projects.

For more information about oral histories or citywide preservation plan, call the SAHPS at 870-862-9890 or Eggleston at 870-315-2308.

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